In light of my belief that the Bill of Rights was intended to be read literally I am going to write this commentary. I am sure my views are held by few people, and that many would actually get upset reading them, as they strongly counter commonly held beliefs which I see to be in error by being based on interpretations of the First Amendment rather than on its actual words.
I’ll start with the first word. Congress. This Amendment was specifically addressed to one entity, Congress. The federal legislative body. We can also logically infer that this applies to the whole of the federal government.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free excercise thereof,” This is the first item in this Amendment. What does this mean? That Congress shall not endorse any religion, nor shall it prevent anyone from practicing one. In the simplest terms, any law that the federal Congress makes either promoting a religion or preventing anyone from practicing one, even in the halls of Congress itself, are unconstitutional. One of our biggest and most devisive issues today can readily be resolved here. Congress is allowed to neither mandate school prayer nor forbid it.
“or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;” Upsetting to some, but it says “freedom of speech” NOT “freedom of expression.” What is freedom of speech? Being able to freely express your opinion without fear of reprisal. It is not the frredom to show off, or the freedom to slander, or even to express something which is not your opinion. It prohibits Congress from stopping you from saying what is on your mind, or from retaliating against you for doing so. And now what of the press? If speech is voicing your opinion, then press is the tool you use to do so. “Press” here is not the organized media, as we have been led to believe, but it is the means by which we communicate with each other. Importantly, it includes the internet, as it is an important communication tool. Congress is not allowed to engage in legislation which curtails, in any way, either speech or press.
“or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” This part is not debated nearly as strenuously as the rest, but the beginning of this debate can readily be evidenced in the attitude today in parts of the federal government that protestors are “low-level terrorists.” This will, I predict, become an increasingly important part of the First Amendment.
Now the really unpopular part. The First Amendment neither prohibits, nor allows the federal government to prohibit, these laws from being enacted by the various States. Those who gave us the Bill of Rights knew that the various States would have equally varied populations, and allowed this authority inside each individual State specifically to allow the people making up the population of their State to tailor their own State Constitution to as closely as possible reflect their own needs and desires. In other words, this is exclusively an issue to be addressed at the State level, except when it involves more than one State simultaneously and in combination, at which time it then, and only then, becomes federal purview.